Wellesley hosts its first ‘Difficult Dialogue’
Community to join together for constructive dialogue on class
Published: Tuesday, March 27, 2012
Updated: Friday, April 6, 2012 12:04
Today, Wellesley College joins other colleges and universities across the country, including Clark University, Barnard College and Yale University, to adopt a nationwide campus initiative known as the Difficult Dialogues Project. The Office of Intercultural Education, in collaboration with the Public Conversations Project (PCP) hopes to promote controlled and productive conversations concerning topics such as race, religion, sexual orientation and world conflicts. The first event will take place tonight in Tishman Commons at 6:30 p.m. and is designed to engage Wellesley College students, administration and faculty in a constructive dialogue around social class.
“The goal is to have at least a hundred people participate,” April Bello ’14 said. “Each table will have one or two facilitators. And we’ll have a one hour, 20 minute discussion of social class at Wellesley.”
Bello is one of 20 student, faculty and staff members who have been training for the past month to lead group conversations under the model of the Difficult Dialogues Project to promote more civic engagement and greater understanding around contentious issues.
The event tonight will begin with a short video which raises relevant questions about classism and equity. Each group will then separate into different groups for discussion under the guidance of the trained student, faculty and staff dialogue facilitators.
Implementing Difficult Dialogues at Wellesley is part of the Initiative for Diversity and Inclusion for Students (IDIS) that was launched in October 2009 to answer the question, “What would success look like if Wellesley College was a truly diverse and inclusive community?” The survey led by an outside team of experts on diversity and multiculturalism resulted in the creation of the Office of Intercultural Education, which is responsible for developing the trainings, activities and programs designed to increase cross-cultural competency. Many members of IDIS committees and task forces are responsible for bringing Difficult Dialogues to Wellesley.
The topic being discussed, social class at Wellesley, was chosen by the organizers. According to Heron Russell ’14, student dialogue facilitator and member of the IDIS Affirmation and Collaboration Task Force, “class” was the obvious choice.
“Class doesn’t get talked about at Wellesley,” she said. “We don’t have any student organizations that are explicitly about social class. It’s a dialogue that a lot of people feel is very taboo and very hushed on this campus.”
In recent months, classism at Wellesley has been the topic of growing debate. As College Government (CG) elections approach, such conversations are becoming more common. On March 8, CG hosted a community discussion entitled, “Classism and Equity at Wellesley.” Much of the ongoing conversation on campus was sparked by a posting on Classism.org in January in which a current Wellesley student listed the many obstacles which she faced at Wellesley in a post titled, “The anger of a first-generation student.”
“We don’t have the competencies or the institutions to have those really hard conversations about the diversity, privileges, hierarchies and divisions that we have on our campus,” said Russell
Since February 2012, experienced dialogue trainers John Sarrouf and Natalie Russ from the Public Conversations Project in Boston have trained 15 students, five faculty members and five staff members as Difficult Dialogue facilitators who will lead conversations in a constructive manner on campus.
“The Public Conversations Project is one of the country’s leading organizations hosting dialogues and training facilitators for conversations around difficult topics,” explained Victor Kazanjian, dean of intercultural education and religious and spiritual life. “This is the first cohort to be trained and to lead campus dialogues as a part of this project.”
Kazanjian along with Kris Neindorf, assistant dean of students and director of residential and campus life, has been spearheading the Difficult Dialogues project. Kazanjian and the rest of the cohort underwent two full days of intensive workshop training followed by regular meetings on Tuesdays to review concrete skills and prepare for the event on Wednesday.
“They provided us with tools that facilitators have such as setting up ‘agreements’ within a conversation,” Bello explained. “These agreements range from respecting people’s privacy to respecting people’s opinions to setting time constraints on how often and how much a person can talk in the space.”
Although the facilitators this year were mainly IDIS committee and task force members, dialogue training is open to the community and will be held every year for those who are interested in learning the skill.
“Training to become a facilitator, especially becoming conscious of the distinction between ‘dialogue’ and other forms of communication, has definitely helped me to become a better listener and given me the opportunity to practice asking questions ‘in service of the asked,’” Tiffany Chan ’12 said.
The organizers this year plan to continue the training in order to maintain a group of Wellesley students, faculty and staff who are trained in leading dialogue in the case of a triggering event or general interest in a controversial topic on campus.